The Taoiseach’s announcement yesterday of the reopening plan for the economy was broadly welcomed by Ireland’s tourism industry, the country’s largest indigenous sector and biggest regional employer.
It contained a number of positive initiatives including the crucial lifting of the inter-county travel ban from May 10, which unlocks the domestic market for tourism and hospitality businesses nationwide. Visitor attractions and experiences will be allowed to open in May and hotels will reopen their doors just in time for what should be a bumper June bank holiday weekend .
There was some confusion as to the status of the Stay and Spend Scheme – set to expire at the end of April – which had proven an unmitigated flop due to its complicated tax rebate design and had benefited neither industry nor the public. Surely the government isn’t going to let the scheme peter out when instead it should to be overhauled and redesigned as a workable staycation voucher to be used in autumn.
There was also a missed opportunity by not announcing a new bank holiday at the end of September, both as a reward to a hard-pressed public and a means to lengthen the domestic tourism season.
Overall though, as Micheál Martin addressed the nation, it was a much more positive announcement, and tourism and hospitality businesses the length of the country can look forward to opening their doors and trading once again after a lengthy period of enforced closure.
Crucially, however, the reopening plan barely mentioned aviation or inbound international tourism, and this is a cause of significant concern to industry. Some 75 per cent of Ireland’s tourism economy is dependent on international visitation, and it is critical to tens of thousands of jobs and hundreds of businesses that inbound markets are opened up once again.
Back in 2017, in a pre-Covid world, then taoiseach Leo Varadkar proudly stated that Ireland would double its global footprint by 2025. Ireland would be “an island at the centre of the world” and the growth in aviation connectivity, to Dublin in particular, made that claim very credible indeed. Sadly the Covid-19 pandemic has put a stop to such an ambition, but whether it is a temporary pause or a permanent halt depends on the government’s next move in relation to international connectivity.
Are we set to be an island off a non-EU island off the western coast of Europe or a globally connected, dynamic, open economy where trade and tourism flourish? The latter is the choice that all right-minded people would choose, yet government’s current attitude to aviation, including the harshest restrictions across Europe and mandatory hotel quarantine for our key strategic markets, makes the former a growing and undesirable possibility.
The lack of a commitment by government in yesterday’s announcement as to how and when aviation can recommence is worrying not just for tourism reasons but also for broader economic reasons.
Ireland’s aviation industry – including big hitters Aer Lingus, Ryanair, DAA and Shannon Airport – recently published a plan to rescue the country’s aviation sector before it is too late. The Aviation Restart Plan sets out a balanced and evidence-based approach to enable the recommencement of aviation and the restoration of Ireland’s connectivity. It contains a comprehensive set of recommendations which, if finalised and implemented, can facilitate the restoration of connectivity while continuing to protect public health.
Government must change tack and state how and when international travel can resume. Failure to do so will result in long-term economic damage. Airlines, with the very definition of mobile assets, may have little choice but to move aircraft to markets where they are allowed to operate and where demand is evident.
The European Commission’s Green Digital Cert offers a pan-European approach to restoring international connectivity while assuaging public health concerns, and Ireland should urgently adopt and implement it. This could mean intra-EU travel by July and, even before that, the Common Travel Area, which has been in existence since the 1920s, should operate in full allowing free movement between Ireland and the UK, the latter well ahead of our own vaccination rates.
Talking about vaccination rates, the US market – key for Irish tourism – will have its adult population inoculated by the end of May. Surely it is not beyond the wit of technocrats on both sides of the Atlantic to create a travel corridor between Ireland and the North American bloc.
We can’t take our connectivity to the world for granted. A plan needs to be put in place.
Eoghan O’Mara Walsh is the chief executive of the Irish Tourism Industry Confederation